[K:NWTS 11/2 (Sep 1996) 3-6]
We respond to the reading of the story of Lazarus with a smile. It is a story with a happy ending. The death of Lazarus has been miraculously reversed—he who was dead is raised up to life. But before Jesus arrived in Bethany—before Jesus stood at the mouth of that tomb—death appeared irreversible.
Death! What a tyrant is death—a seeming omnipotent tyrant. Does not death lay all down under its power? Does any escape death? Is there anyone living who will not die? Is not every sickness a reminder that there is a sickness unto death—a sickness from which there is no escape—no recovery. Tyrannical death seems so invincible, so universally victorious. Not one of us has been unaffected by death—a loved one, a relative, a sibling, a friend, a neighbor. Death has touched even us and we too sense its power—our helplessness—its potency.
Even Jesus seems helpless in the face of Lazarus's death. Is not Lazarus his friend? Is not Lazarus Jesus' friend whom he loves very much? Yet Lazarus gets sick and Jesus does nothing—Jesus passively does nothing. Is not Lazarus Jesus' beloved friend, yet Lazarus dies and Jesus does not prevent it. Jesus seems helpless to prevent the victory and power of death.
Is there ever so slight a tone of disappointment in the voice of Martha, "Lord if you had been here." Is there ever so slight a tone of anguished, heartfelt disappointment in the voice of Mary as she falls at his feet, "Lord if you had been here."
What is Jesus doing? Lazarus, his friend, his beloved friend, his friend for whom he weeps (v. 35), Jesus' friend Lazarus is silent, passive, helpless, shut up in the darkness of a tomb. What irony! What incongruity! Jesus helpless, Jesus passive, Jesus powerless before death the tyrant, death the leveller, death the entomber. Why?! Why is Jesus so apparently helpless, so apparently passive, so apparently powerless? This Jesus who is the I AM—this Jesus who is God. Why is he so like us in the face of death? Why is he so like . . . so like Lazarus? Helpless, passive, powerless.
We know the end of the story. Jesus is not helpless, he is not passive, he is not powerless. This stupendous miracle proves who Jesus is—he is God with power over the grave. This magnificent miracle is unimpeachable evidence that Jesus is not powerless to prevent death. No, he is omnipotent beyond death—Almighty to raise the dead! Jesus is death's Lord. He says to tyrant death, "I am stronger. You cannot hold those I love; those I weep over will live. Death be not proud—I am your robber, your despoiler, your conqueror. Whoever believes in me will live—never die." Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He has proved it at the tomb of Lazarus. You can trust him— though you die, yet shall you live. Lazarus's tomb is for you—your faith; written on your hearts is life, not death—resurrection life, not eternal death—everlasting life, not sempiternal destruction.
Oh, Mr. Dennison, I know Jesus is the resurrection and the life. I know Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave. But, Mr. Dennison, why did he wait so long? Why did he seem so helpless, so passive, so powerless? Mr. Dennison, why did Jesus do this this way?
John's gospel is Christocentric. Jesus is the center. Martha comes to Jesus (v. 20); Mary comes to Jesus (v. 32); the crowds look upon Jesus when he weeps (vv. 35, 36); Lazarus comes to Jesus (v. 44). There is no other to whom to turn—no one else to whom to go. In the face of sickness, death, tears, the grave—Jesus remains the center—the focus.
And yet even as Jesus is the center, he is also the substitute. I have drawn out the passivity and helplessness of Lazarus in the tomb; I have labored the passivity and helplessness of Jesus before he arrives at the tomb. I have done that on purpose because John does it—this chapter does it. Have you noticed this "imitation of Lazarus" in Jesus? Lazarus helpless—Jesus seemingly helpless. Lazarus passive—Jesus seemingly passive. Lazarus dominated by the grave—Jesus seemingly daunted by the grave. You see, Jesus is entering into the helplessness, the powerlessness, the passivity of Lazarus so that he can deliver Lazarus from helplessness, powerlessness and passivity. Jesus is identifying with Lazarus so that Lazarus may be identified with Jesus. The transformation from death to life is a transformation which occurs in Jesus. The reversal from the grave to resurrection is a reversal which takes place Christocentrically. Jesus enters into death that he may live; he appears helpless before the tomb that he may come forth from the tomb; he is passive under the curse that he may be raised up a blessing to those who love him, believe on him, have been transformed—yea, have undergone the death-life reversal in him.
When Jesus commanded that the stone on Lazarus's tomb be removed (v. 39), he was opening himself to death. "Come death!" he was saying. "Come to me! Death, come out from that darkness and possess me. Come death, wrap yourself around me, bind me, tie me up in your puissance. I will rob you, death. l will conquer you, death. I will drain the death from you, O death. I will bind you, O death, and in your place, I will leave life. Lazarus, come forth—for I have taken your death. Your death, dear Lazarus, comes upon me and in its place I give you what is in me; I give you life; I give you resurrection life; I give you new life; I give you life from the dead."
The death which Jesus takes from Lazarus is a prophecy of the death he will die on Calvary. The subtler irony here is that the resurrection of Lazarus will be the occasion of the death of Jesus. What poignant reversals! Jesus raises Lazarus from death to life; the Sanhedrin plans that the life of Jesus will end in death. The death-life of Lazarus becomes the paradigm of the life-death of Jesus. In Jerusalem (near to Bethany, note v. 18)—in Jerusalem, there will be another death—another tomb—another passive victim—silent before his accusers—helplessly nailed to a cross—wrapped and bound in gravecloths, laid in a tomb with a stone rolled across it.
Jesus did this for you. What he did for Lazarus, what he endured himself, he did for you that in his death you may die and in his resurrection-life you may be raised to life—eternal life—everlasting life—life in heaven before the face of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost forever and ever and ever.
Do you see? The power Jesus unleashed at Lazarus's tomb was the power to make the dead alive. And Lazarus was reborn from the dead; Lazarus was regenerated—made alive again from the dead. And the power which was unleashed on that first Easter morn in Jerusalem was the power to make the dead alive. Jesus was reborn from the dead; Jesus was regenerated—made alive again from the dead. And the power which is at work in you who believe on the crucified/risen Son of God is the power of a new birth—the power of regeneration—the power of resurrection—the power of life from the dead. Rebirth from the deadness of your trespasses and sins is yours because Jesus was reborn from death to life. New life—life in which the old things have been put to death and new things have sprung forth is yours because Jesus has received a new life through his resurrection from the dead. Your regeneration is your union with the death and resurrection of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Your rebirth is your possession of that life Christ now lives—an endless resurrection life. Your history has been united to his history even as his history was united to your history. Jesus entered into Lazarus's story that he might transform Lazarus in the resurrection unto life. Dear friends, loose yourselves in the grave that in Christ you may find yourselves in the resurrection of an endless life.
"I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."
*A slightly revised version of a message delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary in California on May 16, 1996 in memory of Dr. John H. Gerstner, who died at his home in Ligonier, Pennsylvania on March 24, 1996. Et civitatem sanctum Ierusalem novam vidi ....